Feminist Therapy focuses on empowering women and helping them discover how to break the stereotypes and molds of some traditional roles that women play that may be blocking their development and growth. This type of therapy grew out of influences of the women’s movement of the late 1960’s. Feminist therapy tends to be more focused on strengthening women in areas such as assertiveness, communication, relationships, and self-esteem. One of the main goals of feminist therapists is to develop equal mutual relationships of caring and support. The therapist believes that her client is the only “expert” in her own issues and will help her develop the tools needed to reach her potential as a unique and valuable individual. There are six main tenets of feminist therapy theory with five main principles. It is important to realize that feminist therapy is not just for women but men can benefit as well. Furthermore, there is a notion in feminist therapy that “personal is political”. This notion means that personal experiences are embedded in political situations, contexts, and realities.
Feminist psychology grew from the influences of the women’s movement of the 1960’s. This movement was a grassroots one; therefore, no one particular theorist can be named the originator of feminist therapy. Feminists tried to keep elements of other psychological theories that worked but attempted to get rid of sexist aspects of the theories. They then tried to explain some of the common experiences and difficulties associated with the social roles that women endure that may be blocking their growth and development. The focus is mainly on helping women in areas such as assertiveness, communication, self-esteem, and relationships. Feminist therapy also focuses on empowering women by helping them see the impact of gender issues. The aim of therapy is change rather then adjustment. It is important to acknowledge sex roles, minority status and socialization in society as possible sources or causes of psychological difficulties. A core concept is equality; therefore, the therapist is seen as equal in the relationship with an outside perspective who provides guidance and new information but the client is seen as having the power to create his or her own desired outcome in themselves and their lives. Reclaiming personal power is a key concept. A task of the therapist is to help individuals explore and understand what is causing dysfunction and unhappiness and then to help develop strategies to overcome these difficulties…
Feminist therapy is not just suitable for women, men can benefit from this therapeutic process as well. Men also deal with social and gender role constraints such as the demands of strength, autonomy, and competition. In addition, they are limited by the notion that they should not express vulnerability, sensitivity, and empathy. Both men and women are exploited by a patriarchal society and limited culture and gender stereotypes. Men can benefit from therapy by working on these issues and by learning new skills to help them understand and explore issues involved with emotions, intimacy, and self-disclosure.
There are four main philosophies of feminists with differing goals in therapy including socialist, radical, cultural, and liberal. First, socialist feminists emphasize the need for change in institutional and social relationships. Next, radical feminists focus on the need for change in gender relations and societal institutions. In addition, they strive to increase women’s self awareness in regards to her sexuality and her desires and views for having children. Subsequently, cultural feminists emphasize the importance of the recognition that women are devalued in society and how detrimental this is. Finally, liberal feminists focus on the individual and the biases these people face in regards to self awareness, self-respect, esteem, and equality. Many ideas and views held by these philosophies overlap and are integrated with the main focus on equality.
There are four major approaches that are unique to feminist therapy which include consciousness-raising, social and gender role analysis, resocialization, and social activism.
Consciousness-raising is sometimes held in small groups in a leaderless manner involving the discussion of women’s individual and shared experiences. Women in these groups do not have to feel that they are alone and they could listen and support others. These individuals examine how oppression and socialization contributes to personal distress and dysfunction and they talk about ways in which solutions for creating individual and social changes can be made. Consciousness-raising helps women feel more powerful to take steps against oppression by participating in social action.
Social and gender role analysis involves the evaluation of the client’s psychological distress and methods of coping. First clients will learn about the impact and affects of social and cultural norms and expectations and how negatively these issues affect society. This helps the client become aware and identify his or her own experiences in regards to social and gender role norms. The therapist helps the individual become aware of both implicit and explicit sex roles that the client may have experienced over his or her lifetime. This helps the client explore possible origins of psychological distress. Together the therapist and the client come up with ways to implement change and gain self knowledge.
Resocialization follows social and gender role analysis and involves reorganizing the client’s belief system. They learn to view things differently and they develop new coping skills and strategies. Methods are taught that increase self esteem, assertiveness, and self views. A main goal of resocialization is an overall increase in well being.
Social activism is rather controversial and not practiced by all therapists. It is embedded in the notion that “personal is political”, which is one of the basic tenets of feminist therapy. This means that there are underlying roots of client’s problems that stem from society and politics. Feminist therapy should not only help the individual but it should help all individuals. Social activism may involve participation by both the therapist and the client. This can be accomplished by speaking out, organized protests, and letter writing campaigns. Feminists agree that social change is crucial and advantageous to the mental health of all individuals.
According to Gerald Corey, feminist therapy is based on five interrelated principles:
1.The personal is political which implements social change.
2.The counseling relationship is egalitarian which encourages equality between the therapist and the client. The client should be aware that she has the power to change and define herself and the therapist is only a tool with new insight and information.
3.Women’s experiences are honored and they should get in touch with their personal experiences and intuition.
4.Definitions of distress and mental illness are reformulated involving the internal as well as external factors of distress. Pain and resistance are viewed as a positive confirmation of the desire to live and overcome distress rather than being viewed as weak.
5.Feminist therapists use an integrated analysis of oppression which means that they understand that both men and women are subjected to oppression and stereotypes and that these oppressive experiences have a profound affect on beliefs and perceptions.
These core principles set the basis for feminist therapeutic practice and it is important to acknowledge that these principles contain overlap and interrelated common ground. Additionally, Lenore Walker indicates that there are six tenets of feminist therapy theory:
1.Egalitarian relationships: this equal relationship between client and therapist models for women personal responsibility and assertiveness in other relationships.
2.Power: women are taught to gain and use power in relationships and the possible consequences of their actions.
3.Enhancement of women’s strengths: so much of traditional therapy focused on a woman’s shortcomings and weaknesses that feminist therapists teach women to look for their own strengths and use them effectively.
4.Non-pathology oriented and non-victim blaming: the medical model is rejected and women’s problems are seen as coping mechanisms and viewed in their social context.
5.Education: women are taught to recognize their cognitions that are detrimental and encouraged to educate themselves for the benefit of all women.
6.Acceptance and validation of feelings: feminist therapists value self-disclosure and attempt to remove the we-they barrier of traditional therapeutic relationships.
Feminist therapy is beneficial and needed for several reasons. The main goal is change, not just change within the individual but change in society. Gender issues need to be addressed because they can cause psychological distress and shape unwanted behavior. Our lives are affected and influenced by the stigmas and stereotypes associated with these internal and environmental pressures which can affect one’s identity. Feminist therapy recognizes this and implements these concerns in practice. Furthermore, women live in a world dominated by males and masculine patterns of thought and behavior. Until recently, psychological studies of human behavior were almost always conducted by men and on men. The results of these studies were generalized to apply to women equally. The results are biased for several reasons including the fact that men and women are not the same. They have developed differently from early childhood and they tend to view the world in different ways. The media gives young children strong gender biased messages. Boys are supposed to be independent, self sufficient, dominant, aggressive, and successful. Girls are sweet, well behaved, passive, submissive, overemotional, and attractive. There is a conflicting problem here because the same traits that are considered appropriate for little girls are considered negative and inappropriate as mature adults. Males tend to view the world in terms of competition and power, while females look at aspects of the world through relationships and connections to others. Therefore, these studies and techniques may not represent women very well.
Women’s natural gifts of being nurturing and caring do not hold much power and value in society according to our social norms. These views and norms prevent women from feeling a sense of strength and power. These characteristics should not be viewed as weaknesses yet society sees it this way. Women should be commended for all he roles that they play. It is hard to juggle a family with children and a career, then come home and do housework and errands. As society becomes more of a dual income earning community some of these issues may turn in a more positive direction. Men do not have it easy either. If a man were to stay home and raise the children and tend to the household needs, society may call him lazy or worthless. Feminist therapists recognize how these factors and they understand how much relationships, connections, and nurturance plays a huge role in individual’s lives. They consider sex bias in a male dominated society and they honor women’s experiences and instincts as being valid. Feminist therapists specifically address issues such as family and marriage relations, reproduction, career concerns, physical and sexual abuse, body image disorders, and self esteem. One of the most important concerns of a feminist therapist is the empowerment of women in today’s world. Bohan (1992) states six guidelines for feminist practitioners to follow:
1.Therapists are knowledgeable concerning gender role socialization and the impact these standards have on what it means to be a woman or a man.
2.Therapists are aware of the impact of the distribution of power within the family and power differentials between men and women in terms of decision making, child rearing, career options, and division of labor.
3.Therapists understand the sexist context of the social system and its impacts on both the individual and the family.
4.Therapists are committed to promoting roles for both women and men that are not limited by cultural or gender stereotypes.
5.Therapists acquire intervention skills that assist clients in their gender role journey.
6.Therapists are committed to work toward the elimination of gender role bias as a source of pathology in all societal institutions.
These principles are based on a gender fair ideology for counseling which may be applied to family therapists as well. These principles also apply to both individual and group therapy. The fact that many principles of feminist therapy can be incorporated into other therapies is a strength because it can broaden the theoretical base of other models and therapies. Feminist therapy aims at enriching and enlightening everyone’s lives by hopefully encouraging social activism in a positive direction.
There are some criticisms and limitations to feminist therapy. Some therapists may be too feminist and militant in their views there by persuading clients. No therapist should persuade nor tell someone the “right” way to look at things. The therapist’s task is to offer support and information to challenge the client to examine for herself which road to take. Another criticism is the biased stance that feminists take. They are not neutral. They are all for a definite change in society and they should take caution not to be too pushy with their views on clients. It is also important that clients take responsibility for actions and experiences and not just blame society. They can be aware of society’s impacts but they also need to fess up and not avoid taking personal responsibility. Another criticism is the fact that feminism originated and was developed by, middle class, white, heterosexual women. Other races and cultures were not involved. This has been brought to attention and feminists have become much more inclusive.
In summary, feminist therapy is beneficial and advantageous to today’s society. The human race will continue to evolve and new theories will also evolve to meet the needs of our unsustainable, plastic society. Feminist therapists will continue to break down the hierarchy of power by therapeutic approaches and interventions with the overall remaining goal as empowerment of the client and social positive change and transformation.
1.Walker, Lenore E.A. (1990). A Feminist Therapist Views the Case. In Dorthy W. Cantor (Ed.), Women as Therapists, (pp. 78-79). New York: Spring Publishing Company.
2.Hecklinger, Fred J. (2003). Training for Life: A Practical Guide to Career and Life Planning. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall Hunt Publishers.
3.Bohan, Janis S. (1992). Replacing Women in Psychology: readings Toward a More Inclusive History, (pp. 88-99). Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall Hunt Publishers.
4.Swanson, Jane L. (1999). Career Theory and Practice: Learning Through Case Studies. Thousand oaks, CA: Sage Publications
5.Benjafield, John G., (1996). A History of Psychology, (pp.321), Needham Heights, Massachusetts: Allyn and Bacon
6.Corey, Gerald (2001). Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy 6TH Edition, (pp. 341-375), Wadsworth: Brooks Cole, Thompson Learning.
© Copyright 2007 by Elizabeth Mahaney, MA, LMHC, MFT, PhD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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